Dr William (Mack) Durham

Department of Physics and Astronomy

Lecturer in Biological Physics

William Durham
+44 114 22 24537

Full contact details

Dr William (Mack) Durham
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Hicks Building
Hounsfield Road
S3 7RH

My research aims to understand the strategies that microorganisms use to exploit their natural environment and compete with one another.

Most of my work is focussed in three different areas:

  1. surface-attached bacterial communities called biofilms, which are responsible for many hard to treat infections,
  2. unicellular phytoplankton, which are tiny plants that live in the ocean and cumulatively produce half of the oxygen we breathe
  3. bacteria living within porous environments like soil, where they drive global carbon cycles and facilitate many important processes in agriculture.

My research group does both experiments and theoretical work.  We use a diverse set of approaches including microfluidics, molecular biology, mathematical models, massively parallel cell tracking, high performance computing, and evolutionary game theory.

Currently, my group is composed of two postdocs (Dr Jamie Wheeler and Dr Oliver Meacock) and four PhD students (Mina Mohaghegh, Nathan Costin, Alexander Bruce and Sasha Evans).

Career history

  • Departmental Research Lecturer (2012-2016, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, fixed-term position)
  • Lecturer of Biological Physics (2016 - present, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, permanent position).
    • BSc in Civil Engineering (2000-2004, Clemson University, USA)
    • SM in Civil and Environmental Engineering (2004-2006, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
    • PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering (2006-2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
    Research interests

    How do bacteria navigate surfaces using pili-based motility?

    Bacteria use tiny "grappling hooks" called pili to pull themselves across solid surfaces. We discovered that surface attached bacteria can sense chemical gradients and use this information to navigate to where nutrients are more abundant (Oliveira, Foster, Durham, PNAS, 2016). 

    I recently received a BBSRC New Investigator grant to resolve the molecular and physical systems that underlie this remarkable ability.

    How do bacteria compete in porous soil environments?

    Bacteria living in porous environments (like soil and sediments) constitute approximately half of the carbon within living organisms globally.

    While these bacteria play a key role in agriculture, biogeochemical cycling, pollutant transport, oil extraction, and hydrology, we understand very little how bacteria compete with one another in these heterogenous environments. 

    My group uses a combination of microfluidic experiments, genetics, mechanistic models, and game theory to understand how bacterial competition plays out in porous environments.

    In a recent paper we showed porous environments can actually select for bacteria that grow more slowly, challenging a long-held paradigm in microbiology (Coyte Tabuteau, Gaffney, Foster, Durham, PNAS, 2017).

    How does flow affect phytoplankton ecology in marine systems?

    Unicellular plants called phytoplankton compose the base the marine food web and cumulatively produce half of the oxygen that we breathe.

    Our work has revealed has ambient flow in the ocean can drive striking accumulations of phytoplankton, which in turn can profoundly both phytoplankton ecology and the fisheries which they sustain.

    We use a combination of laboratory models, simple theoretical models, and supercomputer-based numerical simulations to resolve how fluid flow interacts with phytoplankton motility across a range of different length scales. 

    Recently, we showed that chain formation can profoundly enhance phytoplankton's ability to swim through the small-scale turbulence that is ubiquitous in marine environments (Lovecchio, Climent, Stocker, Durham, Science Advances, 2019).

    How do bacteria coordinate their motility within densely packed biofilms?

    Many bacterial infections are caused by densely packed collections of bacteria called biofilms, which spread along surfaces using pili-based motility. In biofilms, rod shape bacteria tend to align their motility with one another, which gives rise to highly coordinated collective behaviour. 

    My group aims to unravel the physical and molecular systems that bacteria use to efficiently move within these biofilm communities.


    Show: Featured publications All publications

    Journal articles

    All publications

    Journal articles

    Conference proceedings papers

    • Oliveira NM, Foster KR & Durham WM (2018) Bacterial chemotaxis during biofilm formation. IUTAM Symposium on Motile Cells in Complex Environments, MCCE 2018 (pp 61-62) RIS download Bibtex download
    • Climent E, Lovecchio S, Durham WM & Stocker D (2018) Vertical migration of motile phytoplankton chains through turbulence. IUTAM Symposium on Motile Cells in Complex Environments, MCCE 2018 (pp 25) RIS download Bibtex download
    • Madsen OS & Durham WM (2007) Pressure-Induced Subsurface Sediment Transport in the Surf Zone. Coastal Sediments '07 RIS download Bibtex download
    • New Investigator Award, BBSRC, £517K (2018-2021, PI)
    • SHAMROK pump priming grant, EPSRC £10K (2017, PI)
    • Long-Term Fellowship, Human Frontier Science Programme, £85K (2012-2016, PI)
    Teaching activities

    Undergraduate modules

    • PHY1001 Motion & Heat (practical classes)
    • PHY119 Frontiers of Physics (Topic: The physics of microbial life)
    • PHY248 Physics with Labview
    • PHY230 Experimental Physics I
    • PHY231 Experimental Physics II
    • PHY393/PHY393N Microscopy and Spectroscopy

    Undergraduate projects

    • PHY342 3rd Year Research project
    • PHY480 4th Year Research project

    Masters level modules

    • PHY6510 The Theory and Practical Application of Imaging (Topics: phase contrast and DIC microscopy)

    Previously taught modules

    • PHY101 - Optics (Autumn 2017, Autumn 2018)
    Professional activities


    • BBSRC New Investigator Award for "How do bacteria sense and navigate chemical gradients within biofilms?" (£517K)
    • Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Long-Term Fellowship, Oxford University, UK (2012-2016)
    • National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship: Intersections of Biology and Mathematical and Physical Sciences (gratefully declined)
    • Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics, an annual prize for the best doctoral thesis in the area of fluid dynamics, American Physical Society - Division of Fluid Dynamics (APS-DFD)
    • Raymond L Lindeman Award, an annual award for the best paper in aquatic sciences written by an author under 35 years old. American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO)

    Departmental administration

    • Head of Undergraduate Admissions (Oct 2019-present)
    • Lecturer Listening Coordinator (Jan 2018-present)
    • Degree with Employment Experience Coordinator (June 2018-present)